Saturday, January 9, 2010
This is How I Remember It
I grew up on an island in Rhode Island; specifically Aquidneck Island, which heralds three towns: Portsmouth, Newport, and Middletown (my home town). Aquidneck Island is well-known for many things, such as the Naval War College, the Naval Underwater Systems Center (NUSC … now the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, or NUWC), the Newport Mansions, Touro Synagogue (one of the oldest in the nation), St. Mary’s Church (where John and Jacqueline Kennedy got married), Hammersmith Farm (where Kennedy “summered” while in office), the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Cliff Walk, Ocean Drive, the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, Salve Regina, Cardine’s Field (one of the oldest baseball fields in the country), Fort Adams, and some of the most exciting America’s Cup Races ever held.
The Newport Naval Base is also on the island, and used to base the Atlantic Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers, but when I was a child the fleet pulled out, devastating much of the island’s economy. Then came the Bicentennial and the Tall Ships. I was only 11 at the time, and really didn’t know much about either, but they had to be good, because the adults were pretty excited.
What was the big event? In 1976, to join the United States in celebrating our Bicentennial, most of the remaining Tall Ships in the free world stopped over in Newport on their way to New York City for the “big” Bicentennial Celebration (e.g., the Parade of Ships). Tall Ships in general are not a specific class but rather just large, usually wooden, rigged sailboats (e.g., schooners, brigs, brigantines, barques, barquentines, cutters, ketches, square-riggers, yawls, etc.) that are typically used as training vessels these days. They were in Newport Harbor, anchored around the Newport Bridge and Fort Adams, at the Newport Naval Base and Bend Boat basin … all over Narragansett Bay. Oh, and did I mention QE II was also on hand? Yikes.
The island was full of sailors and tourists from all over the world. My friends and I played a game to try to figure out how many different languages we heard while walking around downtown … in retrospect a silly idea, as we had no idea how to differentiate most of them from one another anyway, but fun nonetheless. There were swarms of happy, tired, jubilant, loud, friendly, sun-burned people of every color everywhere.
The Tall Ships began arriving a few days before the big event. About 16 motored in from a Bermuda-to-Newport race that had no official ranking because they all decided to use their engines to make it to Newport in time (they had experienced wind problems in that there was none for the last leg of the race, so they all forfeited together). There were civilian tours of the ships, and the sailors went ashore in groups. When sailors from different ships met up, it was like old home week. They hugged and laughed and dragged each other all over town to make sure everyone got the most out of their shore leave, even though they rarely spoke the same language.
Then, on July 1st, they all paraded through Narragansett Bay. There were literally hundreds of pleasure yachts all over the bay (e.g., sailboats, powerboats, and row boats of every size and description) full to the brim with screaming, cheering, horn-blowing (oh! the horns!), bell-ringing, noise-making, happy, sun-and wind-burned spectators. It was an absolute zoo. There was such a crush of pleasure boats around some of the Tall Ships that spectators literally hopped from one to another.
I don’t remember exactly how many Tall Ships there were, or how many tourists, but I do remember Lower Thames Street was cordoned off for foot traffic only. Aside from the noise and the crush, on land and water, I remember specifics about some of the Tall Ships in particular, such as when the Sagres, from Portugal, which held a special place in many hearts, serenaded us with their National Anthem, and most of the pleasure boats around sang it right along with them (there is a large contingent of Portuguese in Rhode Island and Massachusetts). Or when the Simon Bolivar came up the bay with her sails furled and sailors clinging to her rigging and lined on deck, saluting everyone, and everyone saluted and cheered right back. Or the native pride when the U.S. Coast Guard training vessel Eagle proudly displayed our boys to all. The noise on the bay was deafening, and the seemingly island-wide party lasted well into the night.
Then, very early the next morning, before the dawn fog had completely burned off, most of the Tall Ships left for the final leg of their trip down to New York. It was almost like the whole thing had been just a dream, but it was the most fun I had ever had in my young life, and still holds a very dear place in my heart.